John Bailey: A damaged river, a dead carp and what fish know

beauty of the river

Beauty of the river - Credit: John Bailey

It has been another working week on the road for me, researching waters with all statutory authority approvals in place and a Covid testing kit my constant companion (how I hate sticking these cotton bud type swabs up my nose but every job has its down side).

Journey one was to an absolutely engaging West Country river which was as meandering and characterful as any stream I have ever seen, and that is saying quite something when you think I have spent my entire life messing around on rivers, as a famous water vole once said.

You really could not think of any conceivable feature this river lacked - gravels, shallows, drop-offs, willows weeping, ranunculus , yes, it was all there in mouth-watering abundance. Then I turned a corner and within 50 yards I had wandered from Heaven to Hell. 

river damage

... and the beast - Credit: John Bailey

In the foreground stood a digger, the culprit, as massive and brutal as a character from Jurassic Park. The vegetation had been ripped from the river bank as far as the eye could see, trees uprooted and burned and the spawning bed gravels gouged out and laid to waste along the bank. All fish sightings ceased abruptly and equally suddenly, the birdsong was hushed. This was environmental vandalism on a heinous scale and really beyond any comprehension.

To be truthful, I had been half aware of this calamity a few months ago when it hit even the national headlines, but I had not expected to see anything like this on my visit. You ask yourself how anyone in their right mind could commit such an outrage, such a crime against everything good about our countryside. I was not alone in my horror and a couple of hikers stood aghast on the scene. It was enough to make you weep and I think the lady walker actually did drop a tear.

At the time, I remember reading that the Environment Agency and all the other authorities were riding to the rescue, but there was little sign of any cavalry action here and judging from the still smouldering fires, the desecration is still ongoing. I won’t let this drop and I’ll report back if there is anything to uncover. 

Another sadness was to find a dead wild carp on a visit to a remote lake. I’ve talked about these traditional carp before, centuries old and ever more rare as waters are stocked with modern fast growing strains of mirrors and commons.

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There was no apparent reason why this fish had died and certainly you couldn’t blame any predator. Spring is a tricky time for many fish as they come out of the winter hungry and facing the need to pile on condition as spawning time approaches. We’ve had a horribly cold time of it these last weeks and perhaps enough food simply could not be found.

I guess we’ll never know, just as I won’t know why this death affected me the way it did. The sight of any fine fish gone before its time is grim, but on this quiet bank in this deserted place I sat silent the best part of an hour. How many wild carp are there still existing in the UK I wondered? There might be only a dozen waters, a handful in Norfolk, a few in the west, where they still thrive. A thousand individuals then perhaps? More or less matters not, this death was another calamitous loss.

Very shortly I’ll be mounting my usual spring offensive on the Norfolk stocks of tench and bream and as usual I’m watching the prevalent wind direction above all other considerations. I can fish with a smile in rain and even frosts, but put me in front of an easterly and my heart is in my waders. I’ll be behaving with a little more thought this year than last since several online discussions about what fish feel and how fish think.

Last year I was struck by how many bream and how quite a few tench lost colour during their period on the bank. These are known in the angling trade as two-tone fish and it has long been assumed that the colour variation is the normal state of these fish. But it is not and recent wisdom suggests that the reason is down to restricted blood flow in a period of stress. This is not good when we think about it and I feel it puts the onus on us all to get a fish back as fast as we can. I have been in the habit of weighing and photographing fish that have not in truth been PB list altering and this year more fish will be going back far more quickly. It’s an individual decision, of course, but it is hardly fitting for me to rail against a man destroying a river if I am then going to treat fish with anything less than ultimate respect. 

These debates have brought me back to a book I was immersed in four or five years ago, What A Fish Knows by Jonathan Balcombe. It’s now out in paperback for a tenner or so and is well worth dipping into. I confess I have never read it beginning to end as it is meaty and sometimes uncomfortable to digest, but there are plenty enough morsels of delight to win it back to its place on the bedside table.

For example, fish in rivers seem quicker to adapt to new circumstances than still water fish. Does this mean a river brown is more wary than a stillwater rainbow? But more than that, do fish actually think or are their mental progressions down to conditioned reflex and memory-induced reactions? Do fish see or experience stressful things and gradually form ways of avoiding these situations by trial and error or can they actually work things out first time round?

Take my ruffian of a squirrel. He destroys the fat balls and lays the peanut holders to waste. The whole feeding station is like a bomb site after one of his visits and so I react by placing every goody on a higher, more fragile branch. But if I am cunning, so is he. You can actually see him sitting, looking, pondering, putting two and two together and coming up with a solution. But can a fish do that? I sort of think they can and there will be many carp anglers who agree with me. It does no harm to remember fish are no fools when they have grown and learned their lessons. I just wish the river-destroying moron who had commissioned that digger would learn his.